In a year of COVID delays, Nintendo has announced a handful of games recently, including Super Mario 3D All-Stars (a collection of 3D Mario games), Super Mario 35 (a Mario-themed riff on battle royale), and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light (a localization of the first Fire Emblem). Those are all different games from one another, but what all of them have in common is that Nintendo will stop selling them on the same date: March 31, 2021.
There's not some bulky special edition that's being phased out, either. At the end of March 2021, Nintendo claims they will remove these games from their own digital storefronts. They're disappearing, and so far, Nintendo has yet to provide a fully coherent explanation for what's going on here.
When Fire Emblem was announced, I asked Nintendo if there was something special about March 2021 that was compelling the company to start arbitrary cutting off sales this way.
"Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is the first Fire Emblem game in the beloved franchise, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary through March 2021," said a Nintendo spokesperson in a statement to VICE Games last week. "We are excited to offer the game localized in English for the first time to commemorate the occasion."
There are no such plans for Pokemon Sword & Shield or Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. Here's now Nintendo has phrased this decision every time it's been revealed:
- "[Fire Emblem] will only be available to purchase until the end of the franchise’s 30th anniversary on March 31, 2021."
- "A limited production of Super Mario 3D All-Stars launches exclusively for the Nintendo Switch family of systems on Sept. 18 and will be available until approximately March 31, 2021."
- "[Super Mario Bros. 35] will be playable until March 31, 2021."
Nintendo is a company that's been the subject of conspiracy theories in the past for how it's potentially manipulated its supply of hardware, hoping to juice sales. These theories often come across as sour grapes among people who just want to buy something that's not available. Why would a company want to stop people from being able to buy something? Nintendo is portrayed as a "friendly" company, but ultimately, they want to make money.
So, why March 31? Does Nintendo know something we don't? Is the world coming to end on next year's April Fools Day? March 31 is an important day on the calendar of Nintendo and a lot of other video game companies because it signals the end of their fiscal year. There's a reason many video games that are delayed past the holidays conveniently arrive before the end of March; it's to maximize sales and profits before having to answer to shareholders.
"The one thing I've learned in my over 15 years in gaming is to not get in the business of predicting what Nintendo will do," said NPD Group video game analyst Mat Piscatella.
Piscatella pointed to experiments like Labo, where players construct items out of cardboard, and even the Switch itself as evidence of Nintendo bucking trends and going their own way.
"Limited time releases like Super Mario 3D All-Stars could be Nintendo testing different market approaches to selling and marketing its content in a quickly changing landscape," said Piscatella. "Or the strategy could be part of a content plan that will see these titles be available in other ways. I simply don't know."
The most important takeaway from that exchange might as well have been "I don't know," because it was an idea echoed over and over again, as I asked more people about this.
"Nintendo is quite simply a pathological case when it comes to these matters," said Georgetown University economics professor Alan Bester, who also specializes in statistical analysis in esports. "They're simply not typical of any other developer/publisher/console manufacturer in the industry."
As a company, Nintendo is often compared to both Apple and Disney. In the past, Disney has hoarded its films in what it once called the "Disney Vault." It was Disney's way of ensuring maximum sales and interest every time it re-released a movie. If you didn't buy the movie when it was available, it disappeared from store shelves. It went back into the vault.
With the launch of the Disney+ streaming service in 2019, however, the concept was tossed out the window. By signing up for Disney+, you gained access to (almost) everything Disney has ever made in perpetuity. There is only minor cycling of content on Disney+, largely due to existing licensing contracts. But for the most part, the concept of the vault has gone away.
The Disney Vault forced people to buy right away, and in this case, the obvious but cynical interpretation may prove to be the right one, too.
"This strategy is sure to create urgency amongst Switch users to purchase content and avoid missing out on the experience," said Futuresource Consulting gaming analyst Morris Garrard, "fuelled also by the media attention the strategy is already garnering."
Called out in my own reporting? This is a new one.
"Imposing these time restrictions is expected to aid these limited-edition games in cutting through the noise," said Garrard.
In that respect, it worked; I'm writing an entire story trying to unpack what's happening. It's not often there are headlines about when a video game will stop being on sale, which is basically a free piece of news coverage for the company. It's constantly raising awareness.
"They have data that shows that rereleases of games tend to wither on wishlists," said a developer who's been involved with publishing several games on Switch, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not permitted to publicly discuss their meetings with Nintendo. "The manufactured FOMO [fear of missing out] helps them get those sales, or so they think."
Nintendo has not released sales numbers for Super Mario 3D All-Stars, one of the three games heading to the company's vault in March 2021, but gaming research firm SuperData said the game sold 1.8 million copies digitally in September. That number made it the biggest digital launch for a Mario game.
Maybe the expiration date helped, maybe it didn't. But Nintendo sold a lot of Marios, and even when March 2021 passes us by, there's nothing stopping Nintendo from doing what they've always done: find a way to re-release those games and sell it to you all over again.